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I and Thou Summary
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I and Thou is a philosophical book by Martin Buber. First published in 1923, the book explores the meaning of human relationships, and how relationships bring us ever closer to God. Critics consider the book to be one of the most significant philosophical texts of the 20th century. Historians and intellectual history students regard Buber as a modern prophet. Buber was a writer and philosopher best known for his contributions to religious existentialism, and the philosophy of dialogue. Before World War II, Buber founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education in Germany, because Hitler’s government prohibited Jews from receiving a state-funded education.
Buber makes various proposals in I and Thou. His major argument centers around how we give meaning to our own existence, and the existence of others, by building relationships. Our relationships with other humans bring us closer to God and the true meaning of life. We may shape and define our own realities by carefully choosing how we communicate, and by deciding what our intentions are.
The book considers the differences between levels of human interaction. There are two basic levels. The first is person to person, or “I” to “Thou.” The second is human to object, or “I” to “It.” We can show these relationships as “I – Thou” and “I – It.” Our relationship with objects is impersonal and one-sided. On the other hand, when we engage with other people, there’s the potential for a mutual exchanging of ideas and consciousness.
When we make the effort to listen to someone and respond to them, we see them as our equals. We see them as “Thou.” The other person must also engage with us. It is a reciprocal relationship which provides clarity and certainty, even if it doesn’t last long. For example, we may make small talk with strangers at a bus stop. We form these relationships often.
When we make eye contact with strangers, we recognize their humanity, however briefly this moment lasts. We make these tiny acquaintances every day, and in them, we find our collective identity as human beings. There is something very freeing about this experience, Buber notes.
Put simply, what this means is that interacting with objects is one-dimensional. It doesn’t bring us any closer to God. Talking to another person lets us experience another person’s spirit, which does bring us closer to God. We should all have as many experiences with other people as possible, because this teaches us more about our spiritual nature than surrounding ourselves with machines ever will.
Buber explains his position using God as the ultimate “Thou.” God is eternal, and we are all made in His image. Because we are all extensions of God, or Source, interacting with each other brings us closer to this Source on the other side. In a perfect world, we would treat all humans equally and see them as images of God. The problem is that, too often, we see other people as objects, and we prioritize our relationships with things.
Buber acknowledges that, for all our good intentions, it’s impossible to sustain mutually reciprocal relationships with every human indefinitely. Sometimes we are only superficially involved with someone or their situation. In these instances, the “I” casually observes what’s happening to “It.” At some point, we all become the “It.”
What’s important, Buber says, is that every human “I – It” relationship has the potential to become an “I – Thou” relationship. Our relationships with objects and creatures, on the other hand, will never be any more than “I – It” relationships. The potential is what separates human relationships from all others.
For example, we may be a student asking a professor for help. At this point, we don’t see the professor as a human, but rather a person who offers us knowledge and improvement. We control what we get out of this relationship. However, it’s still true that the professor is a person, and we can form a different relationship with them if we approach it from another perspective.
Ultimately, our only constant “I – Thou” relationship is with God. God is everywhere, and He is all things. Whenever we interact with the world, we engage God. Although we can’t see God physically, He is everywhere and speaks to us all the time. He reveals Himself through people, objects, animals, and the natural world. While we can’t speak directly to God, we find Him if we choose to see Him.
Buber notes that most people, however accidentally, work against this eternal relationship. Humans are materialists who pursue wealth and commodities over sustainable, eternal things. The human ego compels us to look for instant gratification and reward without putting the effort in. This leaves us feeling unfulfilled and hollow, and so we look for more of the same to fill the gaps. Only by breaking this vicious cycle can we find God and foster our connection to the Divine.